161 Memorandum to Jakarta

Canberra, 6 August 1975


Portuguese Timor

I am attaching a copy of a recent Memorandum No. 2157,1 received from our Mission in New York which inter alia discusses the prospects of a debate on Portuguese Timor in the Fourth Committee this year.

  1. The Department cannot quarrel with the logic of New York's argument-namely that the spotlight may be turned on Timor this year if only because the other Portuguese territories may all have been 'liberated' and thus removed from Fourth Committee scrutiny.2 It is indeed probable that the Portuguese, who set the ball rolling at the June session of the Committee of Twenty Four, will want a Timor debate. And it is probable that they will want a resolution. The whole exercise may, of course, be a theoretical, even arcane, one, not well understood outside New York. But any debate and subsequent resolution on Portuguese Timor this year could be an important step towards major United Nations involvement.
  2. Our Mission canvasses the idea of a separate draft resolution or consensus statement on Timor. It is suggested that such a statement might build on the consensus adopted in Lisbon by the Committee of Twenty Four.3 New York believes it may be better for those countries most closely involved-Portugal, Indonesia and Australia-to seize the initiative rather than risk being confronted with a more unpalatable draft at a later stage.4 The problem we see with this approach is that it assumes an identity or similarity of purpose on the part of Portugal and Indonesia over Timor which probably does not exist. There is indeed every reason to believe that the Indonesians and Portuguese are on an eventual collision course over Timor.5
  3. To the Portuguese a resolution in the Fourth Committee would probably be seen as a means of securing international endorsement for the decolonisation program laid down at Macau. They may also see it as an implicit rebuff of Indonesian pretensions to intervene in that decolonisation process. The Indonesians, on the other hand, may be expected to resist any explicit endorsement of the Macau program, which they must regard as having placed Timor too firmly on the road to independence. Portugal, as New York suggests, would probably want any resolution to draw attention to the serious underdevelopment of Timor and its need for international assistance. But as we know from earlier discussions with the Indonesians, the latter are concerned that external economic assistance will simply encourage the pro-independence forces in Timor.
  4. In general, the Indonesians are likely to regard any United Nations development as unhelpful to their position and will no doubt want to resist it. However, our Mission in New York may well be correct in their assessment that the Indonesians would be wise to bow to the inevitable and try to prepare their own draft, to be sponsored by a group of ASEAN countries. In this way they may be able to pre-empt the emergence of a less palatable text at an inconvenient and perhaps late stage in the Timor debate.
  5. We should like the Embassy to have a brief exploratory talk with the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on these matters. What do they expect to happen at UNGA 30? Is Indonesia resting on the hope that they will be able to defer any consideration of Timor by the General Assembly this year? If not, would they intend to launch their own draft resolution? How far beyond the June 1975 Committee of Twenty Four 'consensus' would Indonesia be prepared to see a text stray? What reference to the Portuguese decolonisation program could Indonesia accept? How would Indonesia regard a Portuguese-inspired appeal for United Nations and bilateral aid; or for a visiting United Nations Mission? How would the Indonesians expect the Portuguese to play things? We should be interested in your own comments on the degree of preparedness and realism displayed by the Indonesians, and in the role which they might be disposed to propose that we play? If asked about our role, you should say that we have not yet really had time to think the matter over, but that, like Indonesia, we would be hoping that any debate would be short and uncontentious.
  6. In fact, as you would expect, we see some traps in too close an Australian identification with Indonesian policy at the United Nations over Timor. We are willing to offer discreet support to the Indonesians as our delegation did in Lisbon during the Committee of Twenty Four deliberations. In particular, we believe we are on solid grounds in defending the principle of self-determination as including the option of integration with Indonesia. But we should find it very difficult to support in the United Nations an Indonesian policy which was patently at odds with self-determination or even with the decolonisation program that the Portuguese have now introduced.
  7. We imagine that Australia would wish to assist in the search for compromise texts and indeed we should very much hope that any resolution developed on Timor would be one which would find acceptance with both Portugal and Indonesia. But in practice the Indonesian and Portuguese positions might be very difficult to bridge, and Indonesia might find itself under strong pressure in the Fourth Committee to drop its reservations to a predominantly Portuguese-influenced text. If in this process Australia had adopted too forward a position, we could find ourselves held partly responsible by the Indonesians for what they might regard as a failure. We thus feel we should not get into the position of giving too much advice and we may not be very forthcoming in response to Indonesian (or Portuguese) invitations to co-sponsor texts.
  8. In the light of the foregoing, we wish to approach this question very cautiously. But we think there would be no objections to talking things over with the Indonesians at this stage, particularly in the light of the assessment of our Mission in New York that some debate on Portuguese Timor this year may prove inescapable.
  9. Copies of this memorandum have been sent to United Nations, New York, and Lisbon.


Assistant Secretary

South-East Asia Branch

[NAA: Al0463, 801/13/11/1, xi]